Teachers Not “Waiting for Superman”

Brock Brady Back in 2007, when District of Columbia Public Schools  (DCPS) was still somehow getting by with a superintendent and not a chancellor, I was invited to participate in an advisory group concerning culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students.  The first meeting of the advisory group was presided over by three DCPS administrators.  The first told the audience about all the great new plans and programs administrators were enacting to help all the District’s students thrive. 

The second got up and gave us a lecture on how each and every student could be high achieving, and never mind the Lake Woebegon conundrum. (How can every student be above average?) She dared the audience not to believe that all students could be high achieving and threatened dire consequences to anyone who might, in a passing moment, pause to question whether her assertion was plausible.

The third administrator took the stage and talked about the contribution of parents and the school community. She noted how important parents and the community were to student success and proceeded to give a number of examples of strong community support. Ws-poster

So, the administrators aren’t part of the problem—they have the programs to make things right. The students aren’t part of the problem—they’re all ready to be high achieving. The parents and the community are of course, just dandy. Gee, what stakeholder group was left to be the source of school problems? 

The newly released film, “Waiting for Superman,” (Paramount Vantage) which claims to address a crisis in our public school system, builds its case in a similar fashion. We hear from many administrators who have great programs and plans underway. We hear from administrators who wanted to solve problems but who were blocked by nefarious entities. We are shown five sets of parents and children, all hoping to flee the blight of substandard public schools by winning a lottery that will permit their children to attend charter schools. The children are all loveable and reasonably precocious. The parents are all dedicated, they all want the best for their children, and they all state that they are willing to do the impossible if that’s what it takes to help their child succeed.

True, “Waiting for Superman” does not directly demonize teachers. One of the puzzling aspects of the film is that we hear from no practicing teachers on these problems. We do hear about one teacher in the film who continues to frustrate one parent because he won’t send home her child’s progress folder. We are told periodically about the difference that “one good teacher” can make  (in fact there seems to be an assumption that “good teachers” are rare natural phenomenon, not the products of education and professional development), but we don’t see many teachers. In fact, the one time we see a generic teacher (a cartoon actually), she is opening students’ skulls one by one and pouring in knowledge, as if teaching was simply a matter of information delivery. 

My thought is that Davis Guggenheim, the director, feared a backlash if he painted teachers directly accountable for the problems of our public school system. Instead, the film avoids blaming teachers, instead demonizing teacher unions (we conceptualize “teachers” as individuals, so a union is easier to beat up on for being an entity). In “Superman” the unions are the source of all problems. They refuse to allow the dismissal of incompetent teachers, they refuse plans to introduce merit pay, they block proposals to lengthen the school day or year. Because of unions (according to the film) charter schools needed to be created. Never mind that even proponents of charter schools only find 20% of the schools to be genuine successes—charter schools are the sure solution. But the charter school model can’t be introduced into public schools because of the unions. Clearly the teacher’s unions play the fall guy role here, but wait, the teacher unions represent…ah…er…teachers! So the buck for failing schools stops with the teachers, whether Guggenheim comes out and says it or not.

Teachers play a pivotal role in our public schools, but the challenges facing our schools go beyond what teachers can accomplish—they go to the core values of our culture. Many of the nations that regularly best us in international achievement tests, for example Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, are relatively small and homogeneous countries that value education profoundly and respect teachers immensely. Americans don’t value education as highly; it goes against our sense of self-reliance, and as those of us who have taught internationally know, there are few countries that respect teachers less than the United States. My wife is from South Korea, a place where a child’s education is the number one concern of the family, where studying and studying much is the work of a child.  For U.S. families, too often, school is just one of many, many competing obligations and interests.  If education were genuinely valued in the United States, public education would not be a problem

The other critical challenge on which teachers can have only limited impact are the achievement gaps between minority students (especially those from impoverished families) and students from mainstream families. Teachers must work to narrow this gap. And they want to—why would anyone go into teaching if they were not committed to having all students achieve their best?

My wife teaches second grade in a Title I public school. Last week one of her boys came to school quite ill. Part of the reason he was sick is that he, his homeless mother, and siblings had slept in four different places in less than a week. The mother basically has the clothes on her back. The boy is a good student—so far.  It is just too sad. His continued academic achievement counts on many factors that my wife and his future teachers cannot possibly control.

Still for too many people, if there is a problem in public schools, be it about international comparisons of student achievement or minority scholastic success, it must be the teachers’ fault. Those looking at the source of public school problems are too easily inclined to see teachers as not knowing what they are doing and/or not caring about their students. There are even instructional systems that try to “teacher proof” teaching—choreographing the teaching process right down to scripts that teachers must read (the Success for All Foundation, Baltimore, MD).

The faulty perception, one that “Waiting for Superman” succumbs to, is believing that there are a few excellent, natural-born teachers and many bad or mediocre teachers. Thus the thinking goes, if we just had more excellent, natural-born teachers, the public education’s problems would be solved. This belief simply ignores the majority of public school teachers who take their jobs seriously, who care deeply about their students, who teach with enthusiasm and devotion, and who engage in regular professional development to become better in what they do. The teachers are there. They are doing admirable work.  They are not the problem.

Stereotypes abound about teachers: Great teachers are paragons of inspiration and dedication, the rest are at best, vaguely mediocre. Young new teachers are successful because they are fresh, full of enthusiasm, and willing to take risks, whereas any veteran teacher must be burnt out, cynical, and uninspired. 

Spend time in any public school.  You’ll find veteran teachers as committed and enthusiastic as any novice. Those veteran teachers will also be well educated and deeply experienced in their craft—they can expend their enthusiasm through the most productive channels, while many novices, as often as not, flounder for lack of know-how.

By and large, good teachers are not born; they are educated. Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of DC Public Schools, who appears often in “Waiting for Superman” and is surely one of the film's “heroes,” entered Teach For America with no teacher education or teaching experience and taught for 3 years. Apparently, her students performed very well. Based on her success, she has come to devalue both teacher education programs and career teachers. The problem is that if Rhee had success, it was the exception and not the rule. Most teachers are not “natural teachers.”  Most of us have to learn how to be good teachers, both through professional development and through hard won teaching experience. Good teaching comes from education, experience, commitment, and a willingness to look at yourself honestly and ask, “How can I do better?”  Trust me, we are not the people that to be fired.

Also, times have changed. The teacher accountability movement, which began in the mid-nineties, means that teachers are regularly observed and evaluated, especially during their first 2 years before tenure. Teaching standards are in place and performance indicators monitored. Student success on standardized tests does affect teachers and there are consequences if significant numbers of students in a class don’t achieve grade level results. Are other public school stakeholders being held to comparable levels of accountability?

Teachers have been addressing the challenges of our public schools for many years. They continue to do so despite politicians who take cheap shots at complex problems as elections draw near; they continue to do so despite administrators who impose the “flavor of the year” instructional systems on them and focus only on getting the test scores up; they continue to do so without the support of working parents who want to participate, but who don’t have the time; they do so despite a general public that doesn’t place a high value on education and doesn’t particularly respect teachers.

Do you want a better public education system?  Roll up your sleeves and join us.  We teachers are already giving it our all.

By the way:  My daughter is a sophomore in a public high school, and we are quite satisfied with the quality of her education. 

Brock Brady
President, TESOL

About Brock Brady

Brock Brady
Brock Brady is the programming and training education specialist for the U.S. Peace Corps, a volunteer development agency. He was President of TESOL International Association from March 2010 to March 2011. Before coming to Peace Corps, Brady served as Coordinator then Co Director of the American University TESOL Program in Washington, DC for 12 years. Brady also directed English Language Programs for the State Department in Burkina Faso and Benin, lectured at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) for two years in Korea, served as a Fulbright Scholar in France, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, W. Africa. Brady’s research interests include English language planning and policy, program and course design, and pronunciation. He has also taught English or engaged in educational consulting in more than 20 countries
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5 Responses to Teachers Not “Waiting for Superman”

  1. Brock Brady Brock Brady says:

    Fabiana,
    I would be interesting to hear about what similar perspectives you have heard in South American countries. We are trying to enhance our language planning, policy, and use capacity at TESOL and if this is a broader phenomenon, it would be good to research it more.
    I appreciate your posting,
    Brock

  2. Fabiana says:

    I have not watched the movie yet, thanks to this discussion I know more about it. I am in South America and it looks as if many countries around here are having the same perspective towards teacher’s practices and education.
    Mr Brady’s review of the film is great and the additional information from the discussion too.
    I Want to see the movie

  3. Myles Hoenig says:

    And it is hard to get past the neo-liberal media. They are the spokespeople for all things corporate and military. It just shows that there is no real divergent views on our airwaves. One can only find it in the alternative press or outside of the US.
    It’s hard for teachers to push back when we have so few allies.
    But that’s what ‘struggle’ is all about!

  4. Brock Brady Brock Brady says:

    Myles,
    Thanks for your additional critique. One of the problems I found with the blog was that “Waiting for Superman” can be attacked from so many different angles that I had to pick just one for the blog!
    The reaction to Superman is a sign of the incredible ignorance about what constitutes good learning and assessment of that learning. Politicians, opinion leaders, billionaire computer moguls–in general intelligent people are laying down and buying these ridiculous arguments.
    How in the world does Gates really believe that teaching to narrow focused multiple choice tests will create the kinds of computer engineers that he needs? It’s baffling!
    Of course the big problem is that teachers (and our unions, as you note) haven’t been able to find a voice that will give our point of view traction.
    Or one could be paranoid. Certainly the neoliberals have a lock on the media.
    I hope we can create more anger and more push back. Otherwise, the education system of American will genuinely be in crisis.

  5. Myles Hoenig says:

    This was a good review of the movie’s main points.
    Missing from this, however, is the political angle. The Obama/Duncan educational administration is squarely behind the teacher bashing, union busting, charter school movement.
    What is needed is a call from teachers to openly denounce the propaganda heaped on us by movie moguls, TV tycoons like Oprah, and even the teachers’ unions who often are too afraid to take these people on (as well as their Democratic Party puppeteers)and who do work with ‘management’ to ‘work over’ the teachers.
    As a MD teacher of ESOL, our union in Prince George’s County is squarely behind merit pay without member consent, and the Baltimore Teachers Union has ‘negotiated’ a contract dictated almost exclusively by the school board. The corporate takeover of public education is near complete.
    The problem with teachers’ unions is not that they’re getting in the way of progress. They do get in the way of unfair labor practices, and that’s what they’re there for. But they are also doing the bidding of powerful forces contrary to the aims and goals of teachers as professionals. Their complicity in Race to the Top competition is proof of that.
    On the issue of our ELL’s, no where in the movie does it say how the charter schools do their best to keep them out of their schools, so as not to hurt their scores. Although I have not seen it and do recommend a teacher-wide boycott and protests, our learners are forced into staying with the public school system that is treated in a very hostile fashion by the public.
    We are seeing how curricula is collapsed in order to get our students out, and the likely result is early out– that is to say, dropping out. We see how our students are taking the equivalent of a 9th grade English curriculum in order to take the 10th grade English High School Assessments (for graduation purposes).
    All of these attacks on our English language learners, public school children, and teachers is an attempt to privatize our schools, and it’s working.
    This must stop now.

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